"After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), 'I am thirsty.'"
The Gospel of John is characterized by a very high Christology that is often read back into the stories of Jesus. This is undoubtedly at least one of the factors that guides the way the author (John’s community) shapes and reformulates the sayings of Jesus into lengthy dialogues and monologues. Sometimes in John’s narrative the divinity of Jesus trumps his humanity.
This brief word of Jesus from the cross found exclusively in John’s Gospel is a case in point. Jesus’s expression, “I am thirsty,” on the surface seems to reflect a very human Jesus, but in introducing these words, John presents Jesus as being in complete control, intentionally fulfilling Scripture. (All the Gospels emphasize the fulfillment of Scripture in the passion story, but John does this more than the others. The reference here seems to be to Psalm 69:22, which in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) contains the same Greek words John uses for “sour wine” and “thirst.” Sometimes the connections the Gospel writers make with the Hebrew text are finely stretched. It was their way of emphasizing that God was at work in and through these events.)
John’s picture is very different from the portrait painted in Mark’s Gospel of a Jesus who is mostly passive and cries out, echoing the words of the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is no sense of abandonment and forsakenness in John’s passion story.
While all religious language is symbolic language, John’s Gospel thrives on symbolical and double meanings. No doubt Jesus’s saying, “I am thirsty” has a deeper meaning. From John’s perspective Jesus thirsts to do the will of God even when it involves suffering and death.
A significant aspect of what it means to be thirsty is reflected in an earlier passage in John’s Gospel,
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37–39)
Here John is proclaiming that Jesus is able to quench our thirst for “life” by providing “living water” that flows from within. It’s interesting that John feels the need to interpret the metaphor. The living water refers to the spiritual life mediated through the Spirit of the living Christ, which Jesus’s disciples came to experience after his resurrection/glorification.
I believe that a spiritual life centered on the way of Jesus can quench our thirst in a variety of ways. One of the primary ways, I think, is in our quest for meaning and purpose, which is intimately connected to our need for real community involving mutual caring, sharing, healing, and a passion for justice for all people.
In Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman spends his life in pursuit of being a successful salesman. He lives with the illusion that if he can be successful in his work, his life will be fulfilled. He doesn’t have the courage to face his failures or to ask the critical question if what he was pursuing had real meaning. In the end, he commits suicide. His son, Biff, says to a friend, “There were a lot of nice days. When he’d come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch ... You know something, Charley, there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made ... He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong ... He never knew who he was.” He never discovered the spiritual thirst that can make life fulfilling.
To thirst is to be alive, and those who are spiritually alive thirst for the “more” – the Transcendent, the Really Real, the Ultimate Reality. Some of us have found this thirst met through our discipleship to Jesus. We look to Christ to bring coherence, meaning, balance, and participation in a story that is much larger than our little stories. We learn to live in reliance upon the Spirit and we discover that a meaningful life is oriented around a growing intention and will to love as Christ loved.
(The reflections above were adapted from chapter 5, “Thirsting for Life” in my book, Why Call Friday Good? Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)